Japan imperial couple offers solace to disaster survivors

Wed Apr 27, 2011 11:21am EDT
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By Linda Sieg

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko met and chatted with survivors of last month's massive earthquake and tsunami Wednesday, offering comfort and solace in a role that has helped keep the country's ancient monarchy relevant in modern times.

Other royals round the globe may be heading off for Friday's wedding of Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton, but Japan's imperial family has more somber duties at the moment after the March 11 disasters left some 28,000 dead or missing, devastated the northeast region and triggered a nuclear crisis.

Wednesday, Akihito, 77, and Michiko, 76, traveled by train and helicopter to an evacuation center in Fukushima, northeast Japan, where residents fled from both the natural disasters and a nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) plant 240 km (150 miles) from Tokyo.

Later they were to visit Sendai city, further north, and other devastated areas in early May.

The royal couple, Akihito in a windbreaker and Michiko in a belted beige top and grey slacks, knelt to speak with evacuees in the school gymnasium that has become their temporary home.

"I have not seen survivors smiling that way for more than a month and a half. That's how moved everyone was. The older people were crying," Jin Sato, the mayor of the town of Minamisanriku, devastated by the tsunami, told reporters.

It was the sort of scene with which Japan's public has become familiar since the royal pair visited the quake-stricken western port of Kobe in 1995, but one that contrasts sharply with the distant imperial image before defeat in World War Two, when Akihito's father, Hirohito, was considered a living god.

"Until 1945, the Imperial Household would have made some sort of donation. But this sort of role where they literally go out and hug people and comfort people is specific to Akihito and Michiko in particular," said Portland State University Professor Kenneth Ruoff, the author of several books on Japan's royals.   Continued...

<p>Japanese Emperor Akihito (L) and Empress Michiko (2nd L) pray for earthquake and tsunami victims as they stand at the playground of Isatomae Elementary School, in the disaster-affected area in Minamisanriku town, Miyagi Prefecture April 27, 2011. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko paid their first visit to the northeastern Japan on Wednesday since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku region. Minamisanriku town mayor Jin Sato (R) and Miyagi Governor Yoshihiro Murai are seen behind them. REUTERS/Toru Yamanaka/Pool</p>